Sesame Street debuts first Asian American character amid backdrop of hate crime

Ji-Young will become the newest resident in the show’s upcoming Thanksgiving Day special

Sravasti Dasgupta
Monday 15 November 2021 15:06
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A a Korean American muppet called Ji-Young is all set to create history as the first Asian American character to join the iconic Sesame Street television series.

Ji-Young, a seven-year-old muppet will be introduced in the show’s upcoming Thanksgiving Day special See Us Coming Together: A Sesame Street Special, reported the Associated Press (AP).

The special will also include appearances by many celebrities, including Simu Liu, Padma Lakshmi and Naomi Osaka.

Ji-Young’s character has been shaped by her puppeteer Kathleen Kim, 42, who is also Korean American. She said developing the character was a childhood dream come true for her.

“I feel like I have a lot of weight that maybe I’m putting on myself to teach these lessons and to be this representative [of] that I did not have as a kid,” Ms Kim told AP.

The decision to create Ji-Young’s character came after discussions following George Floyd’s death in 2020 and a rise in incidents of hate speech and crimes against Asians.

Sesame Street reflected on how it could “meet the moment,” said Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of Creative and Production for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organisation behind the long-running television series.

New characters were developed after the nonprofit set up two task force groups to analyse content and diversity.

This resulted in the inclusion of Tamir, an eight-year-old Black muppet who spoke about subjects like racism for the first time.

Ji-Young’s character is meant to be an upstander who points out “things that are wrong or something that someone does or says that is based on their negative attitude towards the person because of the colour of their skin or the language they speak or where they’re from,” said Ms Stallings.

“We want our audience to understand they can be upstanders.”

Creators said Ji-Young will continue to make appearances throughout the season and will not just be used to point out racial discrimination. The character will also introduce her friends on the street to different aspects of Korean culture.

She will have two passions: playing her electric guitar and skateboarding.

Creators said this was essential to portray Ji-Young specifically as Korean American.

“They kind of want to lump us into this monolithic ‘Asian’,” said Ms Kim. “So it was very important that she was specifically Korean American, not just like, generically Korean, but she was born here.”

Ji-Young will be seen with other Sesame Street residents on Thanksgiving Day as they prepare for Neighbour Day, where everyone shares food, music or dance from their culture.

Ji-Young is shown to get upset after a character asks her “to go back home,” a common insult that immigrants face.

The show drives home positive messaging against racial hate as Sesame Street’s other residents, guest stars and friends like Elmo assure Ji-Young that she belongs as much as anyone else.

Activist groups said the inclusion of Ji-Young’s character is crucial to reflect immigrants’ inclusion on long-running American shows like Sesame Street.

“It sparks curiosity and early understanding of the diversity of our community, the beauty in the diversity of our community,” said Vanessa Leung, co-executive director of nonprofit Coalition for Asian American Children and Families.

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